Sophie studied Psychology at the University of Birmingham, and is now working full time as a primary school teacher. She loves to explore new countries with friends and family, and has just completed her first solo volunteering experience.
Why did you choose this program?
A few friends had travelled abroad and it looked like a lot of fun, and I was always incredibly jealous seeing their pictures when they got back! As it was my first time traveling solo, I decided that a volunteering project would be the best way to get out there, whilst not being completely alone.
I had looked at a lot of programs on many different websites. In the end, I chose the project at Daktari Bush School in South Africa as it involved teaching local children whilst also looking after animals - I was sure it would keep me busy!
As a primary school teacher, I love working with children and thought that this would be a brilliant opportunity to not only make a difference for these children, but improve my own teaching in a situation completely different to the one I am used to in England.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
After making the initial booking, I was sent a pre-departure checklist of everything that I needed to do prior to arrival. They put me in touch with a service that many of their volunteers use to get the best deals on flights, which saved me a lot of time!
The team at Daktari also organized return transfers to the airport, which was included in the program cost. I also needed to organize travel insurance which covered working with animals, as well as making sure my travel vaccinations were up to date. After asking about free time on weekends, I was sent a list of excursions and (very reasonable) prices that were available and could be arranged upon arrival.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
I'd tell them to take every opportunity that arises, especially if it's something that pushes you outside of your comfort zone.
Whilst in South Africa, I was encouraged to completely embrace their culture and say 'yes' to things I never would have dreamed of doing.
Whether that was something small like eating lunch using 'natural knives and forks' (your hands!) and eating termites, or something more outlandish like doing a 68m fall off a canyon edge or taking part in a game of Bokdrol Spoeg (a giraffe poo spitting competition!) - everything creates a memory, and is a brilliant story to tell when you arrive home!
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
Volunteers arrive on a Saturday, and have the weekend to settle in and take advantage of many excursions offered by Greg, a friend of Daktari. During my first weekend, we stayed overnight at a local game reserve and went on two safari drives and a cheetah walk! It was a fantastic start to the week, and a great way to bond with the other volunteers.
A group of 8 children arrives each Monday from one of the local secondary schools, and they stay at Daktari until noon on Friday. Each day, volunteers and children take the dogs on a bush walk before breakfast, then spend an hour feeding and cleaning out the animals. Teaching then begins at 9am, and include lessons covering topics such as politeness, tourism, poaching and animal knowledge, but also more interactive activities such as a visit to a local game lodge where the children can talk to staff about job opportunities.
In the evening, everyone participates in a social talk on issues such as substance abuse, respect and safe sex, and then the rest of the evening is spent playing games such as Pictionary or dancing around the bonfire. Volunteers will also have free time where they can play with the animals, help with projects like improving the enclosures, or catching up with family and friends back home via the internet.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
At first, I was a little unsure about traveling solo. In the past I have always travelled with family or friends, and so always had someone to share my experiences with, and who would act almost as a safety blanket.
I was quite nervous when planning a trip where I would spend two weeks with a group of people I had never met before, and had to get to the middle of the South African bush by myself! I soon realized I had no reason to be; Ian was there at the airport to greet myself and another volunteer and he immediately made us feel welcome. He even stopped the car a few times on the way back to show us the giraffes and other animals!
Meeting the other volunteers, the warm welcome continued and it seemed like they had created a proper little family at the project. Everyone there was in the same situation as myself, and I made so many friends, some of which I am planning on meeting up with again later in the year. Now I wouldn't think twice about traveling solo - strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!
In what way has this program had a lasting impact on you?
As a volunteer, you have a real impact on the children by teaching them about job opportunities, tourism, their environment, how to look after the animals and social issues, but they also have a massive impact on you.
I learnt so much from them about African culture, and it has made me much more appreciative of everything I am lucky enough to have. Whilst collecting hay, one of the girls was showing me how balance the bale on my head, and explained that this was how she carried water each day.
I was also given the opportunity to visit a local crèche as part of Daktari’s outreach program and teach a lesson to the 3-4 year olds. It was a real eye opener, and the incredibly simplistic classroom was such a contrast from the colorful displays and learning resources in my school back in England. Teaching lessons without the use of a computer and flashy powerpoint slides has helped me to become a much more reflective teacher, and I hope this will benefit my class back in England.